Felix Coetzee's (PICTURED) return to South Africa has been well received by racing fans who no doubt remember his big-race and championship-winning exploits before he left these shores for a long stint in Hong Kong. With the Canon Gold Cup upon us, Mark Anthony reflects on Coetzee's remarkable record in the race.
When it comes to the Gold Cup, two jockeys stand head and shoulders above the rest: Charlie Barends and Felix Coetzee, both of whom have captured South Africa’s premier staying race a mind-boggling seven times. Both riders are, of course, recognised as being among the all-time greats of the South African turf but I did not have the good fortune to witness the legendary Barends in action as his career flourished well before my time. Coetzee, on the other hand, is still very much active, even as he enters the final phase of his illustrious career and each of his Gold Cup wins remains fresh in the memory, a quarter of a century after he kicked off his winning sequence aboard the great staying mare Devon Air.
It’s worth noting that Coetzee could so easily have been on his own, at the head of the list, with eight wins. He was carded to ride favourite Hawkins in 1983 but fate played him a particularly cruel hand that winter as he was struck by illness more than once between May and August that year, costing him several weeks in the saddle and, ultimately, the jockeys championship. Mark Sutherland picked up the ride on Hawkins and duly stormed home over the Greyville 3200m. There were no such problems the following year. British-bred Devon Air had hardly looked a world-beater in her native country but the mare thrived under the care of the maestro Terrance Millard when brought to this country to race in the famous Des Scott colours. During the Cape summer season of 1983-4, she cruised home by 13 lengths in the Sidney Benjamin Handicap over 2400m before finishing an excellent third in the J & B Met after setting the pace. The easy Kenilworth 2000m was far too sharp for her and it was no disgrace to follow home two middle-distance stars in the form of Wolf Power and Spanish Pool. She then travelled with the Millard string to Durban for the winter season and kicked off her campaign with an all-the-way win in the Republic Day Handicap [Greyville 1900]. Her greatest triumph then followed as she notched up another front-running triumph in the Rothmans July. This was a performance of exceptional courage as she was not given a soft lead by any means and was harried for much of the race by another UK-bred, Sabre Dance, who rightly decided to make her work for it. She shook him off in the straight and repelled a host of challenges to land the spoils in the country’s most important race.
The key question in the Gold Cup was whether Devon Air would cope with the two-mile trip, being 800m further than she had been before. Interestingly, she didn’t go straight to the front on this occasion, instead settling in second behind pacemaker Gay Welshman. Coetzee revealed in an interview nearly 20 years later that Devon Air knew how to pace herself up front and he would not rush her into the lead unnecessarily as anything going quicker than her was probably going too fast. So it proved as Gay Welshman started to feel the heat and Devon Air struck for home about 800m out. It might have appeared a bit too early for some but she was such a powerful galloper that nothing was able to make up ground on her in the straight. Hawkins came out of the pack to run a gallant second and the talented son of St Cuthbert is worth remembering as a top stayer in his own right whose career was sadly interrupted by injury.
In 1985, Coetzee had the ride on Voodoo Charm, a newly-turned 4-year-old who had enjoyed a highly successful 3-year-old campaign, running second in the Cape Derby and SA 2000 (the latter behind July second Wild West) and winning the Natal Derby and Lonsdale Stirrup Cup. Those victories came over 2400m and there were once again doubts as to how he would go over the extra half-mile. He settled in about fourth place on the fence as stablemate Petit Prince went out to make the running and made his bid soon after entering the straight. A decisive turn of foot saw him cross the subway with a handy advantage and although outsider Super Fortress (a stalwart Cape handicapper who could turn it on, on his day) made a late charge, Voodoo Charm kept him at bay by nearly a length. Petit Prince stayed on for third and this more than decent stayer picked up a big prize of his own when winning the Gold Bowl over the same trip a few months later.
Coetzee completed the hat-trick aboard Occult in 1986 but there was an ironic twist as, a month earlier, Occult – seemingly the Millard third string – had upset Coetzee’s mount Fools Holme in the July. Occult had never raced beyond 2200m but he had won the July from the front and it certainly looked as if his superior stamina had won him the day against Fools Holme, a US-bred of formidable talent. As Occult has also won the Republic Day Handicap, he was in line to emulate Devon Air if he could complete the treble in the Gold Cup. The tactics used were similar to the previous year as Occult sat in second behind former Gold Vase winner Supreme Sovereign. He slipped through on the inside as they turned for home and once he had kicked clear of the rest, it was race over.
The winning streak was interrupted in 1987 – the year that Aquanaut announced his arrival as arguably the finest stayer ever bred in this country – but Coetzee was back in the winner’s box in 1988, aboard the enigmatic Castle Walk. There was no doubt that the son of Dancing Champ could run, but catching him right on the day was another issue, as he had already shown that winter: a very useful SA Guineas third behind star stablemate and soon-to-be July winner Royal Chalice was followed by a disappointing effort in the Daily News 2000 where he had patently refused to co-operate. He then showed his ability in the Natal Derby where, after loping around towards the rear of the field, he threaded his way through in the straight for an eye-catching win.
In the Gold Cup itself, Coetzee had to get himself down to 49.5kg – an unusual sight as his usual riding threshold at the time tended to be around 52kg. It proved worth it as he let Castle Walk get through the early and middle stages in his own time, at one stage easily 15 lengths off the pace-making Pedometer. Having enjoyed a nice position against the rails, he switched outwards as the field fanned out at the false rail and delivered his victory charge down the stand side, finishing too strongly for stablemate La Fastidiosa and outsider ILe Maurice.
Of his Cup-winning mounts, the most talented was undoubtedly 1990 victor Ilustrador. The Argentine-bred was a shooting star who all too briefly lit up the racing firmament during the winter season of that year, landing an extraordinary string of feature wins from 1200m to 3200m. The sequence started in the Rupert Ellis Brown Memorial over 1200m, where he caused a 33/1 upset over a trip considered too short for him. He then flew up to end Cape Guineas winner Face North’s unbeaten record in the SA Guineas over a mile. The 2400m of Natal Derby represented unknown territory and, in a false run race, it required all of Coetzee’s prowess to virtually carry him across the line. It was hardly the best trial for the July but, when the greatest race of all came around, it was run at a much more satisfactory pace and he powered home ahead of stablemates Olympic Duel and Jungle Warrior (each of whom was good enough to warrant an article in his or her own right).
Trainer Terrance Millard then nominated Ilustrador for both the Mainstay 1800 [now Champions Cup] and the Gold Cup and it was widely assumed that he would have to choose one or the other, with the races being run just a week apart. As strange as it sounds, Ilustrador ran arguably the best race of his career when third in the Mainstay. Drawn horribly at 16, he missed the break and had a huge amount of ground to make up in the straight. He nearly pulled it off but battled to get a clear run, which ultimately proved decisive. In the circumstances, and considering the weight he was conceding to Face North and Rip Curl, who beat him home, it was a remarkable performance to be beaten merely a length into third.
Many were surprised when Millard opted leave Ilustrador in the Gold Cup. There was no doubt that he was the best horse in the race, but he had had a very tough season and the Mainstay effort had been a bruising one. One could not be certain that he had recovered from his exertions the previous Saturday and, given that he was going the extra 800m for the first time, there was plenty of scope for things to go wrong.
Coetzee responded with a marvellously sympathetic ride aboard the son of Cipayo, settling him about six lengths off the leader and ensuring that he would not have too much to do in the straight. Up front, the lead changed hands a few times with each of Pass The Line, Aquanaut and Respectable having a short stint before Natal Oaks winner Danseuse Classique decided to hasten things up.
Danseuse Classique - somewhat bizarrely, a daughter of speed king Harry Hotspur – had won the Oaks in the mud, so stamina was clearly not an issue and she was given a very enterprising ride by Eric Chelin, who was determined to make the most of a handy weight. The pair turned for home a few lengths clear and to her credit, the filly never stopped trying in the straight. Ilustrador, meanwhile, made up ground readily, as expected, and went past her about 300m out but it wasn’t going to be a rout by any means as Danseuse Classique continued to give cheek to his inside. Outsider Hula King, meanwhile, was about to unleash a late spurt wider out and he lunged to get within half a length of the favourite but Ilustrador had done enough to complete a winning sequence that is unlikely to be replicated. The bare form of the win was hardly impressive, especially given the quality of opposition he had beaten in the past, but this race was not about making big statements. It was rather a case of nursing a top-class but potentially tired horse through a gruelling race over a distance he hadn't tried before and making allowances for the arduous campaign he had been through in the preceding three months. With his typical professionalism, Coetzee had got the job done with a minimum of fuss, just keeping his mount together for the task at hand.
A six-year gap elapsed before Coetzee got back on the Gold Cup winning trail but his last two wins would go down in the memory bank as two of the most brilliant rides of his career. By 1996, the racing landscape had changed considerably. Coetzee had relocated to Hong Kong and Terrance Millard, with whom he had enjoyed such a successful partnership, had retired, handing the reins over to son Tony. It was the latter who invited Coetzee back to ride the Foveros mare Festive Forever in the Gold Cup that year. Festive Forever was no star but she had won and been placed up to Gr 2 level and had finished second in the Gold Vase the previous year (in those days, the Vase was run over 2400m at Clairwood, unlike its present incarnation). That was as far as she'd been and to negate the obvious stamina doubts, Coetzee dropped her out early and she sat towards the rear of the field for much of the race. There was plenty of work to be done turning for home but once set alight, the mare responded with a telling turn of foot. Milleverof, winner of the race the previous year, came out to be the danger and these two battled it out to the line with Festive Forever just doing enough for a narrow but superbly-judged win.
Two years later, with Barends' record now within his grasp, Coetzee returned to ride another Millard-trained mare, the Argentine-bred Bella Bianca. Even less accomplished than Festive Forever, Bella Bianca's sole feature win had come in the Gerald Rosenberg Stakes but she had run a blinder, all things considered, when seventh in the July a month previously. Millard raised a few eyebrows by also entering Chaplin, at that stage a moderate handicapper who best form was over 1400m and who was completely out of place in this race. The plan came together perfectly, though, as Chaplin went out to make the pace for his stablemate, who settled in second. The race was won as they came off the final bend. Coetzee stole a march on the field and then rode the race of his life to keep Bella Bianca at her task. Dangers abounded with up-and-coming stayer Parisian Tango running a big race and multiple feature winner Travel North - the best horse in the race - trying to get on terms. There was a final twist as SA Derby winner Kale flew up in the dying strides but Bella Bianca showed great courage under pressure and stuck her neck out for a gallant win.
Coetzee has only had a couple of rides in the Gold Cup since then, coming closest with Fantastic Horse (third) in 2003. He is not be riding in this year's edition of the race and, at the age of 50, time is obviously running out for him to capture that elusive eighth win. Happily, he is still very much a force in the saddle (anyone who doubts that should watch his ride on Bayete in the Caradoc Gold Cup a few months ago) and if he does manage to pull it off before the curtain comes down on his glittering career, it will be a feat warmly received by his many fans and well-wishers in the racing fraternity.